By Sneha Sharma
On January 28, 2016, Asia’s largest dump, Deonar, caught fire, engulfing Mumbai’s (India) eastern suburbs in thick particulate smog. The air quality dropped to ‘severe’ (AQI 435) as the fire released harmful dioxins into the environment. Blazing over nine days, a satellite image of the fire captured by NASA’s satellite was politicised by local and national political parties to criticize the ignorance of the ruling government. Earlier, on January 16, 2016, across the globe in Chile, the Santa Marta landfill in Santiago broke into flames and burned for three days (Valle, 2016). Dump disasters in the Global South continued in 2016 as the Bhalswa landfill in New Delhi, India also caught fire (“Bhalswa Landfill on Fire,” 2016) while Guatemala City reported a perilous landfill slide on 28th April killing three waste-pickers (“Garbage Pile Collapse Kills Three in Guatemala” 2016).
Even though dump and landfill disasters are common and have catastrophic ecological impacts, they are frequently under-reported in the international media. Not only there is a paucity of qualitative research on landfill and dump disasters in the Global South, but most of them do not make it to English platforms and remain restricted to local newspapers and media. A growing body of literature points out that human-made disasters like chemical spills, gas leaks, and urban fires are not isolated cases of infrastructural deficiencies or poor governance but are emblematic of deeper structural inequalities (Bullard, 2007, 2018; Erikson, 1995; Fortun, 2001; Furedi, 2007; Knowles, 2014; Superstorm Research Lab, 2013). Moreover, these disasters and their institutional responses maintain these inequities rather than being merely exacerbated by them (Parthasarathy, 2009, 2018; Schutt, 2015).
My own ethnographic engagement with post-fire contestations at Deonar landfill from 2016-17 reveals that modern municipal waste disposal is not limited to removal of garbage but often involves a strategic churning out of unwanted people, and extreme events such as dump fires reflect the social precariousness of marginalised communities like those of waste-pickers.
Putting waste in place
Deonar is a toxic legacy of Mumbai’s colonial city planning. It officially served as an open dump prior to being regulated as a landfill site through the city’s first development plan in 1966. Though its official references oscillate between a dump and landfill, its status remains ambiguous, as efforts by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) to convert it to a sanitary landfill failed. Moreover, Deonar continues to be ubiquitously referred as a dumping ground in public discourse (henceforth referred here as a “dump”).
Located in Mumbai’s infamous M-east ward (Varshney, 2019), the 94-year-old dump is situated alongside the city’s largest slaughterhouse. These structures are surrounded by dense squatter settlements of Shivaji Nagar, notoriously known as a ‘Muslim’ slum (Contractor, 2012). The fire that began in January 2016 spread over large tracts of the dump due to the direction of wind, and the smoke ascended beyond the roofs of the squatters near the landfill, confronting the high-rises of distant gated communities.
The fire mobilized affluent and elite elements of Mumbai’s population. Protests were primarily led by the middle-class neighborhood groups against the BMC (“Smoke Chokes: Citizens Protest” 2016). During an interview with me, a resident of Raheja Acropolis (a gated community) shared,
“We live in a gas chamber; the municipality should immediately shut the dump and shift it outside the city. The dump pollution is killing us. We as law-abiding, tax-paying citizens demand the right to clean air.”
The claim above supports the concept of substantive citizenship (Holston, 2008), through which inhabitants are recognized as part of a formal workforce that pays taxes and thereby can make legally recognized claims. This implicitly establishes those outside the formal economy as non-citizens. Scholars who focus on citizenship and politics of class such as Bhan (2016) and Fernandes (2004) note that civic claims around pollution and cleanliness in India are increasingly being made by middle-class social groups, but at the expense of the urban poor. Such ‘bourgeois environmentalism’ (Baviskar, 2002) overlooks the role of affluent areas as sources of pollution and successfully employs legal tools for asserting their own aesthetics on public spaces (Ghertner, 2011).
Mumbai’s civic activists filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) and other petitions in court demanding the state government and BMC permanently close the dump, shift it outside the city, and follow scientific practices of waste disposal. In response, the Bombay High Court ordered immediate securing of the dump and encouraged1 a Waste to Energy (WTE) plant as a potential ‘scientific’ solution (Rajkumar Sharma vs Shri. Pandurang Patil, 2016). Increasingly, cities are resorting to technological upgrades of waste handling and disposal through Western imported solutions (Baldwin, 2019; Gray, 2018) like mechanical sweeping and WTE plants to prevent landfill disasters (Pappas, 2017).
Who started the fire?
Deonar is supported by a highly organized infra-economy (Gidwani, 2015) consisting of informal sector workers belonging to socially stigmatised caste minorities like Dalits (Thatra, 2020), Muslims, and Christians (Björkman, 2014). These waste-pickers not only face discrimination because of working with polluting substances, but are constructed as illegal and law-breaking elements in society (Mirza, 2019). These inequities are not only exacerbated by disasters like the fire, but the disaster response was part of maintaining these inequities.
Alerted by the complaints and legal interventions mentioned above, the BMC suspected the fire was an act of sabotage by unknown persons. Calling these actors out as ‘miscreants’, the BMC filed an FIR (First Information Report) against unknown persons (Bhalerao, 2016). By strengthening the narrative of blame and homogenising all waste-workers as part of a “mafia”, the BMC created a need for increased security at the site. Deonar witnessed a proliferation of surveillance by the BMC as CCTVs and watchtowers were installed, the existing damaged compound wall was repaired with barbed wire, and the Maharashtra State Security Forces were recruited to protect the site from unauthorised access. The police purportedly arrested 13 waste-workers including scrap dealers and waste-pickers (“Four More Arrested for Deonar Blaze,” 2016). The news of the arrest of waste-pickers served as an action-oriented response by the authorities and mollified the infuriated gated communities even though the charges were not proven in court (Modak, 2016).
Abdul, a waste-picker arrested in connection with the fire and later released after heavy fines told me,
“I was at my friend’s scrap shop to check out the extent of the fire because my only source of income was at risk. At that moment, a police inspector approached me and offered a free health check-up. He said they were conducting blood tests to evaluate health risks for people who were working at the dump at the time of the fire. Before I could say anything he had already put me in the police van and took me to the police station. It was only later that I came to know that I was arrested along with others on suspicion for starting the dump fire.” (Interview with waste-worker, 2016)
Abdul’s statement contradicts the officially constructed narrative of the authorities which argues that the fire was intentionally started by waste-pickers to recover metals. It raises questions about why waste‑pickers would start the fire if their livelihoods depended on unhindered access to the dumping site. Cancellation of working permits previously issued by the BMC made waste-workers ‘illegal trespassers’ and susceptible to police action. Apnalaya (a local NGO) estimates that around 1500 waste‑pickers and their families were pushed into unemployment post-fire, women being most adversely impacted because direct access to the dump allowed them to pursue multiple odd jobs and care work at home (Interview with Apnalaya representative, 2016). By making them ‘illegal,’ the waste-workers were discarded from the waste economy and forced to enter into short-term exploitative informal negotiations with security guards at the site or migrate to other precarious jobs.
Losing their reliable source of income, the waste-pickers pleaded to the BMC to resume their waste segregation activities. On September 9, 2016, around 200 waste-pickers and small scrap dealers organised a protest march to the local M-ward municipal office demanding the right to access the dump (Interviews with members of waste-picker’s association – Kachra Vechak Seva Sangh, 2016). Unlike the middle-class protests, their efforts failed to get any traction with the authorities and the media.
BMC officials failed to constructively address the waste-workers’ plight by withholding information on future plans for the dump. The waste-pickers kept navigating complex bureaucratic hierarchies for more than a year until their mobilisation dissipated. Meanwhile, the suspicion on waste-workers as ‘miscreants’ was repeatedly reproduced in BMC’s bureaucratic reports (based on documents collected during fieldwork, 2017) such as High Court Order Compliance Reports (dated 23.03 & 02.05.2016) and responses to regulatory agencies such as Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, legitimising and propagating the narrative through institutional responses. The High Court order instructed the BMC to act on the presence of anti-social elements. This blame was morally offloaded on the waste‑workers owing to their social and material ‘waste intimacies’ (Butt, 2020).
The story here resonates globally with landfill sites and dump fires where a moral politics of blame is used to justify cleansing of spaces from informal workers for creation of secured enclosures. Green‑washed projects (“Gorai Dump Yard Makeover,” 2012) like WTE (Tangri, 2021) displace existing labor-intensive informal waste systems (IJgosse, 2019) and compete with same waste-streams accessed by waste-pickers for material recovery (De Bercegol & Gowda, 2019; Demaria & Schindler, 2016). Deonar highlights that legal and administrative interventions should be inclusive of those whose voices are actively suppressed, and that a reimagining of waste management strategies (Cavé, 2020) must include waste-picker groups (Ribeiro-Broomhead & Tangri, 2021). The court and municipal authorities need to recognise the local social and economic dependencies and complexities of dumps before imposing homogenised technocratic quick-fixes.
Ethical clearance for interviews was received from the University of Bonn, ZEF Research Ethics Committee on 29/06/2016. Pseudonyms have been used to protect the privacy of the respondents, but the religious identities of names have been retained for appropriate reflection of the social context.
Sneha Sharma is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Geography, University of Bonn. Her PhD work focused on the politics of waste where she looked at contestations and everyday practices of exclusion at the Deonar dumping site in Mumbai, India. She has embarked on the journey to publish a book based on her PhD research findings. She is also working on a two-year project, ‘Urban villages by the airport’ supported by the Fritz-Thyssen Foundation.
Baldwin, E. (2019, January 21). World’s Largest Waste-to-Energy Plant Set to Open Next Year in Shenzhen. ArchDaily. https://www.archdaily.com/909843/worlds-largest-waste-to-energy-plant-set-to-open-next-year-in-shenzhen
Baviskar, A. (2002). The politics of the city. SEMINAR-NEW DELHI. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2012-001758
Bhalerao, S. (2016, March 22). Second big Deonar fire doused, BMC says it was sparked off . Hindustan Times. https://www.hindustantimes.com/mumbai/second-big-deonar-fire-doused-bmc-says-it-was-sparked-off/story-XdS6pNXcKAEG8xwzqjP2PN.html
Bhalswa landfill on fire, AAP govt alleges sabotage. (2016, April 21). Hindustan Times. https://www.hindustantimes.com/delhi/bhalswa-landfill-on-fire-aap-govt-alleges-sabotage/story-Cygp5Qi10wg6WQgfmWvRUJ.html
Bhan, G. (2016). In the public’s interest : evictions, citizenship, and inequality in contemporary Delhi. University of Georgia Press.
Björkman, L. (2014). Becoming a slum: From municipal colony to illegal settlement in liberalization-era Mumbai. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38(1), 36–59. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2427.12041
Bullard, R. D. (2007). Equity, unnatural man-made disasters, and race: why environmental justice matters. In R. C. Wilkinson & W. R. Freudenburg (Eds.), Equity and the Environment (Vol. 15, pp. 51–85). Emerald Group Publishing Limited. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0196-1152(07)15002-X
Bullard, R. D. (2018). Environmentalism and Social Justice. In Dumping in Dixie. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429495274-1
Butt, W. H. (2020). Waste intimacies: Caste and the unevenness of life in urban Pakistan. American Ethnologist, 47(3). https://doi.org/10.1111/amet.12960
Cavé, J. (2020). Managing urban waste as a common pool resource. In M. Chen & F. Carré (Eds.), The Informal Economy Revisited (pp. 189–194). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429200724-33
Contractor, Q. (2012). ’Unwanted in my City- The Making of a “Muslim Slum” in Mumbai. Muslims in Indian Cities: Trajectories of Marginalisation, January 2012. http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&btnG=Search&q=intitle:’Unwanted+in+my+City-+The+Making+of+a+’Muslim+Slum’+in+Mumbai#0
De Bercegol, R., & Gowda, S. (2019). A new waste and energy nexus? Rethinking the modernisation of waste services in Delhi. Urban Studies, 56(11), 2297–2314. https://doi.org/10.1177/0042098018770592
Demaria, F., & Schindler, S. (2016). Contesting Urban Metabolism: Struggles Over Waste-to-Energy in Delhi, India. Antipode, 48(2), 293–313. https://doi.org/10.1111/anti.12191
Erikson, K. T. (1995). A New Species of Trouble: The Human Experience of Modern Disasters. In A New Species of Trouble: The Human Experience of Modern Disasters.
Fernandes, L. (2004). The politics of forgetting: Class politics, state power and the restructuring of urban space in India. Urban Studies, 41(12), 2415–2430. https://doi.org/10.1080/00420980412331297609
Fortun, K. (2001). Advocacy after Bhopal : environmentalism, disaster, new global orders. University of Chicago Press.
Four more arrested for Deonar blaze. (2016, April 17). Hindustan Times. https://www.hindustantimes.com/mumbai/four-more-arrested-for-deonar-blaze/story-8KTNuqXoE1gJyII9Cx7leP.html
Furedi, F. (2007). The changing meaning of disaster. Area, 39(4), 482–489. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-4762.2007.00764.x
Garbage pile collapse kills three in Guatemala . (2016, April). The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/28/garbage-pile-collapse-kills-three-in-guatemala
Ghertner, A. (2011). Nuisance Talk and the Propriety of Property: Middle Class Discourses of a Slum-Free Delhi. Antipode, 00, 1–27. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004
Gidwani, V. (2015). The work of waste: Inside India’s infra-economy. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 40(4), 575–595. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12094
Gorai dump yard makeover among world’s top 100 sustainable projects. (2012, July 7). Hindustan Times. https://www.hindustantimes.com/mumbai/gorai-dump-yard-makeover-among-world-s-top-100-sustainable-projects/story-ecgml2r7Ct51Qk34PdTN0O.html
Gray, A. (2018, May 9). This African city is turning a mountain of trash into energy . World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/05/addis-ababa-reppie-trash-into-energy/
Holston, J. (2008). Insurgent Citizenship Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil. Princeton University Press.
IJgosse, J. (2019). Waste Incineration and Informal Livelihoods: A Technical Guide on Waste-to-Energy Initiatives. WIEGO Technical Brief No. 11. Manchester, UK
Knowles, S. G. (2014). Learning from Disaster? The History of Technology and the Future of Disaster Research. Technology and Culture, 55(4), 773–784. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24468470
Mirza, S. (2019). Becoming Waste. Review of Urban Affairs- Economic and Political Weekly, lIV(47).
Modak, S. (2016, August 10). Deonar fire in March: No witness names 13 arrested by police . The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/mumbai/deonar-fire-in-march-no-witness-names-13-arrested-by-police-2964709/
Pappas, S. (2017, March 17). Koshe Disaster: What Causes Garbage Landslides? . Live Science. https://www.livescience.com/58307-what-caused-ethiopia-garbage-landslide.html
Parthasarathy, D. (2009). Social and environmental insecurities in mumbai: Towards a sociological perspective on vulnerability. South African Review of Sociology, 40(1), 109–126. https://doi.org/10.1080/21528586.2009.10425103
Parthasarathy, D. (2018). Inequality, uncertainty, and vulnerability: Rethinking governance from a disaster justice perspective. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 1(3), 422–442. https://doi.org/10.1177/2514848618802554
Rajkumar Sharma vs Shri. Pandurang Patil. (2016, February 29). Bombay High Court.
Ribeiro-Broomhead, J., & Tangri, N. (2021). Zero Waste and Economic Recovery: The Job Creation Potential of Zero Waste Solutions. https://zerowasteworld.org/wp-content/uploads/Jobs-Report-ENGLISH-2.pdf
Schutt, R. K. (2015). A Sociological Perspective on Disasters. In Rebuilding Sustainable Communities for Children and their Families after Disasters: A Global Survey. https://doi.org/10.5848/csp.1820.00001
Smoke chokes: Citizens protest against Deonar dumping ground fire. (2016, March 22). Hindustan Times. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india/smoke-chokes-citizens-protest-against-deonar-dumping-ground-fire/story-Cz4RSoFtqInMw1LAWrd0lM.html
Superstorm Research Lab. (2013). A tale of two Sandys (White Paper). https://superstormresearchlab.org/white-paper/
Tangri, N. (2021). Waste Incinerators Undermine Clean Energy Goals. https://eartharxiv.org/repository/view/2050/
Thatra, G. (2020). Dalit Chembur: Spatializing the Caste Question in Bombay, c. 1920s-1970s. In Journal of Urban History. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144220923631
Valle, M. (2016). El incendio del vertedero Santa Marta: El día en que Santiago quedó bajo el humo. Meganoticias. https://www.meganoticias.cl/nacional/186053-el-incendio-del-vertedero-santa-marta-el-dia-en-que-santiago-quedo-bajo-el-humo.html
Varshney, A. (2019, April 24). At the Deonar Dumping Ground in Mumbai, People Barely Make It to the Age of Forty . The Wire. https://science.thewire.in/politics/rights/deonar-mumbai-slum-waste-dumping-ground/
 Back in 2014, influenced by a national policy on SWM (revised MSW Rules 2014) the BMC was already deliberating on introducing WTE.